The little girl in the yard wore only a t-shirt and a diaper. Maria thought that was weird, because it was cold even though the sun was out. Cold enough that Maria had even gone back inside her house, without being told, to get her jacket.
"Hi," she said to the little girl, walking up the driveway and into the yard. "Where's your mommy?"
Sucking her thumb, the girl watched her. She didn't answer, didn't even make silly words like Maria's baby cousins would.
"Is your mommy using the computer?" Maria sat on a pink tricycle. "Mine is. Did she send you outside, too?" She pedaled the trike, but her knees kept hitting the handlebars. She got off and began to wander around the yard. "You sure don't have many toys. What's your name?"
Still the girl kept quiet. But she followed Maria, and that gave Maria an idea. She remembered her cousins liked to throw rocks in the little stream down the road. "Come with me," she told the girl. "Let's do something fun."
They walked together down the dusty dirt road. Maria made sure to hold the girl's hand, as she had seen her mommy and aunt do with her cousins. She wished Mommy could see what good care she was taking of the little girl. She always asked Mommy for a little sister to play with, but Mommy always said no. She asked if she could help with her cousins, who often came to visit, but Mommy said no to that too. "You're too little," she told Maria. Once Maria's Aunt Harriet had added, "Besides, she'll probably—" Maria hadn't heard what her aunt thought she would probably do, but Mommy had laughed and nodded. Neither of them would look at Maria.
She and the little girl reached the river. Maria remembered her cousins liked to stand on the huge rocks that kept cars from crashing down into the water. "Stand up here." She helped the little girl climb onto the biggest rock. "Now I'll find some rocks for you to throw."
The girl smiled when Maria returned with two fist-sized rocks, the size her cousins liked. "Now you throw them in the water, like this." Maria demonstrated with her hand.
The girl threw the first one. It landed somewhere among the grass below. The second plunked into the water among the bigger stones. "Yay!" Maria cheered the way Mommy and Aunt Harriet did.
The shout from behind them sounded like Mommy at first. Maria turned and waved, but the woman running toward them was not Mommy. "Look!" She flung out an arm to point. "Is that your—"
The woman screamed. She stopped where she was, put her hands to her face and screamed the scariest scream Maria had ever heard. Maria put her hands to her ears and tried not to cry.
That was when she noticed the little girl was gone from the rock.
She took her hands from her ears and looked around. No girl.
Then Maria remembered Aunt Harriet scolding her cousin Braden for jumping on the big rock. "Do you want to fall and smash your head on those rocks?" she'd screeched, and Braden cried so loud that they'd all gone home again.
Shaking, Maria looked down the gully.
The girl lay bent across the two big rocks her little rock had fallen between. She was face down in the water. Maria didn't know little kids could hold their breath, like big kids could. Something red spread in the water around the girl. Maria didn't remember her wearing anything red. Then she realized it was blood.
The woman in the road started to run toward her. She wasn't screaming anymore, but her face scared Maria. The woman looked as angry as Mommy had been the time Maria ruined her brother's science project. Mommy had spanked her so hard she couldn't sit for three days.
She didn't mean it this time, she wanted to say. She was only playing with the girl. Andrew hurt her when no one was looking; she wanted to hurt him back. But not the little girl, not her friend.
Instead of coming at Maria, the girl's mother plunged over the bank. She slid down toward the water on her butt. "My baby, my baby," Maria could hear her saying over and over, and finally she had to run, because "my baby" was what Mommy called Andrew and Maria had asked her once why she never called her baby and Mommy had said Maria would never be her real baby.
Sobbing now, Maria ran home. She would hide up in her room, where the girl's mommy could never find her and Andrew could never hurt her again and no one could tell her she wasn't their baby. She would fall asleep, and in her forever dreams she would play with her cousins and the little girl, and no one would ever get hurt again.
Christa M. Miller is a writer based in northern New England . Her work has appeared at Spinetingler, A Cruel World, and Flash Pan Alley. Visit her website at http://www.christammiller.com for more.